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  • Writer's pictureThe World Digested

The Elegance of Sanshuya

Sardines @ Sanshuya

Sanshuya is elegant. It is elegant because it knows precisely what it is. To know what it is, one has to know what it is not; and how many eateries or, men and women for that matter, indeed know what they are and are not? We all want to be more, so much more than what we actually are - more money and more prestige, bigger houses and fancier cars, smarter and fitter and younger and richer; in short, anything and everything what we are not at this minute in time.

Some (or too many) restaurateurs strive for global domination as a way of being more. Granted, we live in an era where the skill of multitasking is prized and efficiency ratio is the default language, yet a human being still only has two hands and one mouth as far as one person’s capability goes. Yet, these chefs go ahead and open restaurants across the continents and oceans as if they have found the secret to teleportation or cloning,[1] while they should really be focused on quality control or just better recipes.

We are insatiable, our appetite bottomless and our greed boundless. More, more and even more, we cry out. There are countless blogs, guidebooks, journal reviews on food and restaurants, and everyone thinks he or she is an expert. Too much information, too many choices, too many words and just too many explanations. The chefs are arrogant, the waiters aggressive, and the diners are even more arrogant and aggressive. Eating out has become a tactile combat: the restaurants dare the diners to eat, while the diners challenge the restaurants to surprise them, to amaze them, to entertain them, to give them all and feed them all.

Sanshuya is a breath of fresh (if somewhat tainted) air in this crazy world of ours because it allows the eaters to eat - something we have forgotten to do. It allows us to exhale the long-held breath that has been choking us, and in its stead, inhale the fume and smell and the warmth, which make up the conviviality in the place day and night.

Sanshuya is a canteen, located in Kanda - a bygone business center of tired businessmen. It cooks a very limited range of tried and true Japanese food - no butter nor mayonnaise - but it has never bothered with authenticity. It is not big, but not small. It is not a nonsmoking facility, and it only serves cheap sake and beer. It does not fry things, but it is not aiming to be health-conscious. It does not cater to a gluten-free diet, but the only choice of carbohydrate is rice. And, most importantly, it only serves fish; even shellfish and crustaceans stay outside. Oh, no, there is the one meat item - stewed chicken with tofu - which is in fact one of the signature dishes. The brusque menu - no poetry here - is written on strips of wood and papers on the wall; depending on where you are sitting, sometimes you cannot really read them. The waitresses are not mean, but certainly not obsequious. Neither a promise of tipping (not allowed) nor the station of life would anyone faster service (fast anyway) or better seats (equally crappy no matter where). If anyone asked Sanshuya why it would not do any of the things other restaurants normally do, then I can only imagine a Bartleby-esque response: “I prefer not to.”

But what Sanshuya bothers doing, it does it well and, sometimes even exceptionally well. Their crown jewel is the stewed ara of Chilean sea bass. Ara is not the fleshy part of the fish - what meat you get is incidental - but consists of whatever other restaurants and shoppers would leave behind - namely, the head, the back bones and the tails. Forget delicacy or subtlety. Your sole goal should be to suck out all the gelatinous globules out of the nooks and crannies of the fish carcass. The flavor is no-nonsense and does not require an opus to describe: the fish is sweet, salty and fatty. Or if you really need me to expand, then the caramel of the sauce rivals the famed caramel au beurre salé of Bretagne.

The sweet stewed sea bass @ Sanshuya

There is also a version using buri - mature yellowtail - and if you are lucky, you may get the eyeball. I surely did.

Sometimes, you get the best...

Sashimi are fresh and plenty here. My favorites are the tataki of horse mackerel and saury; both served with copious amount of grated ginger and chopped scallions. Sanshuya does not write out the provenance and life history of each fish that you are eating, and it does not need to. Too often have I and a supposedly perfectly grilled sea bream stared at each other forlornly across the table, while the waiters had droned on, and on, and on, about their mother and father and how they were killed as if I were attending a funeral. The seasoned waitresses at Sanshuya - no males and no youths - cannot care less, and as soon as they slam down your order, you are free to dig in whichever way you wish.

Of course, you cannot leave without getting the shime-saba, a marinated mackerel, as it is legendary. It is available all-year around, but not all-day around, although both locations of Sanshuya remain open from lunch to dinner.

Shime-saba (marinated mackerel) @ Sanshuya

Yes, there are two Sanshuya’s in Kanda: one is slightly brighter and bigger, but opens its doors fifty minutes later than the honten (the head store). Moreover, there are other Sanshuya’s - two in Ginza, one in Iidabashi, and some more, while the one in Kamata has a competing claim to being the head store. Not all Sanshuya’s are created equal: for example, the two in Ginza do fried food - their fried oysters have people queuing up before lunch time - and the one in Iidabashi grills its Chilean sea bass instead of stewing. These Sanshuya’s are the survivors - ranging anywhere between thirty to fifty years of longevity - which is quite a feat in the short life span of restaurant industry.

These eateries with the same name are, however, neither franchised or chained together. Their relationship is based on the traditional Japanese noren-wake. Noren is a curtain, dyed with the logo or the name of the store, shading the entrance of a store; it is a sign, a billboard, and a façade all rolled into one. In the old days, once an apprentice had proved himself that he had fulfilled his obligations and had truly learned the business, the parent store would permit such apprentice to carry the noren elsewhere, by giving them noren-wake - dividing the noren - so that the apprentice could finally be his own master and open his store. Noren used to be a guidepost of quality in the age before Zagat’s survey and Michelin guides. The new store under the noren-wake is a legally distinct entity and is only loosely bound to the parent store by moral and social norm.[2]

Noren-wake is less common today, except for a few areas of the traditional Japanese cuisines. However, the idea lives on and appears to be the secret behind many successful food businesses in Japan. The notables include the world-famous Coco-Ichibanya, the Guinness Book record holder of over 1,300 franchised curry shops and, O-Sho, the famous and infamous gyoza empire. With respect to these two institutions, the success seems to lie, ironically, in the individuality of each franchise. O-Sho has long embraced their colorful personality and each store competes with their own siblings by offering different menus, and Coco-Ichibanya has started to allow their franchise owners to branch out in a similar fashion.

However, the above does not explain the success of each Sanshuya. They all claim to specialize in cooking fish for the masses, not the select few, but whether they share their source of fish or knowhow is unknown. In a way, they are like a big family, not warring but definitely not close, and completely obscure from the outside world. One waitress at the Kanda branch claimed that she had never heard of the one in Kamata.

And yet, even the lack of transparency is typical to Sanshuya like the vapor and smoke crowding the ceiling. Does it really matter to know everything in black and white? Surely, it is not as important as whether you can snatch up the coveted marinated mackerel before it runs out or whether you will receive an eyeball in your bowl. But a voice more capable than mine should answer this question:

There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demand upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger. - Muriel Barbery, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”

The meat falls off the bones, literally, at Sanshuya

Sanshuya Kanda Honten

Phone: +81-3-3252-3035

Address: 3-22-4 Uchikanda, Chiyoda, Tokyo 101-0047, Japan

(Another branch: +81-03-3256-3507 / 3-21-5 Uchikanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan)

[1] Yes, I am still irked even years later by the proud proclamation by one famous chef that his two intercontinental kitchens were connected via video phone, or whatever thing they call it today.

[2] Noren is also the “goodwill” as appeared on a company’s balance sheet after a merger and acquisition.

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